It’s been the summer of pink and plastic, as “Barbie” became the top grossing film in history, reigniting our collective interest in the iconic dolls and, by extension, the stories of women who grew up in the orbit of her 11-inch frame.

The movie also nudged Barbie’s creator, the once-disgraced business mogul Ruth Handler, into a gauzy, forgiving light.  

While the movie brought Handler’s success into the foreground, a new, free exhibit at the Barry Art Museum on the Old Dominion University campus focuses on the woman who came before Barbie, Madame Beatrice Alexander.

Thirty-six years before Barbie sauntered onto shelves, Madame Alexander founded the Alexander Doll Company with 16 employees and a mission to make dolls that were both fashionable and durable.

ODU’s exhibit showcases dozens of dolls from around the world, made from a range of materials and processes that have evolved over the years.

Guest curator Sara Woodbury said she designed the new show with an eye toward making the dolls more accessible to ODU students and other non-collectors. 

Accordingly, she reorganized the collection from a chronological display to one that highlights connections between dolls and categories such as technology and culture.

The show will satisfy fans of the more famous plastic dolls, too. 

The exhibit features four original Barbies, including a rare first-release doll clad in iconic black and white striped swimwear—along with vintage clothing and an early cardboard dream house.

“There are countless stories behind these dolls,” said Rodney Waller, a Madame Alexander expert and collector who contributed to ODU’s exhibit.

Photo by Cynthia Vacca Davis 

Collector Rodney Waller is considered an expert on Madame Alexander dolls and contributed to ODU's exhibit, which is on display until Dec. 31, 2023.  

In the early 20th century, dolls offered women a “good field to get a foot in,” said Charlotte Potter Kasic, executive director of the Barry Art Museum.

The show’s emphasis on women as entrepreneurs echoes the themes of female empowerment that resonated with “Barbie” audiences.

Madame Alexander was 17 when she married hatmaker Phillip Behrman in 1912. By 1914, she was living in an apartment with about 12 members of Behrman’s family, supporting them by sewing cloth dolls. Behrman began working full time for the Alexander Doll Company in 1925.

A Madame Alexander doll was “much more than a plaything,” Waller told WHRO.

Madame believed that “little girls need as much education as boys,” he said. 

Alexander’s dolls drew on characters and themes from literature and art and were designed to “enrich the lives of young girls “and vicariously their mothers and probably a couple of brothers and a father, too,” he said.

A savvy marketer, Madame Alexander secured licenses to make dolls based on celebrities. 

When the first surviving set of quintuplets was born in 1934, she produced five identical dolls each with their own identifying clothing sets. 

Waller said the success of the dolls gave Madame Alexander “the financial ability to go more exquisite,” and her dolls became synonymous with quality.  

Madame Alexander “was able to achieve in a man’s world when everything was against her,” Waller said.